Dozens of people raved to me about China in anticipation of my trip there as North American Delegate for the Henan Tourism Board. Only two rogue voices in the crowd-sourced Facebook world of opinions dare deviate. “It’s weird. Everything in China is weird.” I ignored them. I was on the last journey of a 3-continent, 32,000 mile (50,000km) month of travel. China couldn’t show me anything I hadn’t seen before. I had this. Right?
It didn’t take long to realize I wasn’t in Kansas anymore. Ironically, also boarding my flight at the last possible minute was the Chinese Justin Bieber, LuHan. I was engulfed in a street mob of screaming young girls before I’d even left the tarmac. “Get used to waiting in line and in crowds,” friends had told me. I’d gotten a taste of this at the Chinese Consulate in San Francisco, though despite the appearance of chaos, my three trips there were rather efficient.
^^Watch the video recap of my travels in Henan^^
Flying economy on Air China is a special experience. I knew this would be the case when the drink cart came down the aisle and I asked for a glass of red wine. I was promptly informed “wine only for after dinner,” and settled for a warm beer. I didn’t know it then, but warm beer would be a theme in China. It’s not something they serve cold as cold beverages are believed to imbalance the body. This is an adjustment for hops enthusiasts, but it does mean in airports and more developed city regions there are “water fountains” with room temp, warm, and boiling water for soup.
Walking through the Beijing airport reminded me of being in Greece. Reading the language is literally like playing memory, a game of matching symbols. China was nothing if not humbling. The world is not the English-America centric orb we believe it to be. Chinese is the most spoken language on earth, followed by Spanish (English is #3.) The hyper-accelerated growth has created an environment that is both ancient and infant all at the same time. The paint on the walls feels dangerously fresh. Tourist attractions lead guests through duty-free like booths of trinkets upon exit. There is a perception of freedom but an ever-present anxiety blows in the heavy, humid wind.
Henan is one of the largest provinces in China. 97,000 Million people living in an area 1/6th the size of Canada. It is on the Yellow River, which serves as the “backbone” for Henan culture. The region is known as the birthplace of China. It is the home of Longmen Grottoes and Shaolin Monastery. Allegedly, the noodle was invented here in addition to Kung Fu. It is also where the only female in Chinese history ever reigned.
I landed with an open mind. One that had a few questions when after 15 hours of air travel, we boarded a 4 hour bus at midnight that took us deeper inland to the “Swan City” of SanMenXia. I couldn’t read a single sign or find a piece of toilet paper on the way there. Thankfully, I always roll with a few Starbucks napkins in my bag. The van finally stopped in what felt like the middle of nowhere, and we were given three hours to nap, shower and dress up before heading to the Yellow River Tourism Conference.
I wish I had more to tangibly report from those first days in Henan. There was very little translation and ignorance abound (on my part.) I can say that we saw swans, both of the living and taxidermy variety. We visited the first dam on the Yellow River. The water level was too low for it to be in operation, however, there was a rainbow-LED lit tunnel of plexiglass bridges connecting murky koi ponds to amuse us inside (literally.)We were herded amongst the flocks of umbrellas and tour group signs between attractions that felt too new to carry history. I would learn this was the part of Henan that had most recently developed. In fact, one of the sites we visited was a community of underground cave-homes that had been occupied as recently as 2012. Here, someone mounted me on their horse that they could take a selfie with the pony and I in the background.
I woke with the sunrise. I ran each morning, trying to ground myself to the country. I felt removed and isolated. Not from home but from everything. I was all at once aware of the incredible feat immigration is. How terrifying and lonely it must be to land somewhere foreign in every way and attempt to assimilate. It was powerful and humbling. I savored these quiet hours when I was free to roam. I smiled at the few fellow runners who also seize the light of daybreak. On my last morning in SanMenXia, a fellow trotter I had seen a few times around the lake passed me again doing my last set of sit-ups. I looked up to smile and was met the largest grin I’d seen all trip, complete with a nod, and pronounced thumbs up. My heart filled. Despited communication barriers, there is so much we can say non-verbally. This encounter set the tone for what was to come next.
I knew very little about Louyang before we headed there, save for that it was the home to Longmen Grottoes and one of the cultural capitals of China. Given my experiences the days prior, my expectations were tempered. The grottoes are made for international tourism, with guides speaking multiple languages along the intricately carved river bank. It is a well oiled machine, for good reason. It is also one of the most striking things I have ever seen. Over 500 years ago, monks carved (literally) 30,000 Buddha of varying personality, size and detail into caves along the river here. Some are as small as a doll, others are four stories tall and thirty feet wide. There are also empty caves, amidst the Buddha caves so that monks could pray inside them. It is truly stunning. My breathlessness could have been from the 100 degree heat, hundreds of slick stone steps or the Buddhas. I’m sticking with the latter.
Like any good child of the 90’s, I played Mortal Kombat. I was good for little besides smashing buttons on the controller and making ridiculous sound effects but I enjoyed it all the same. Embarrassingly, this is also the primary source for my knowledge of Shaolin Monastery. It his the birthplace of Kung Fu, the home of the Ancient Pagodas (where the most legendary monks are buried) and the training ground for the next generation of masters. It is nestled high up in the mountains, in a lush, private setting for both mindful practice and thousands of spectators. If you’ve ever watched a Kung Fu movie or played Mortal Kombat, it looks just like you’re picturing. The monks chant, practice, study and perform despite the chaotically unorganized thousands of tourists that roam their grounds daily. Perhaps that’s a part of the challenge. Find peace amongst it all…
The trip ended with a mad dash through crowded alleys of street vendors and Chinese Foot Massage. The massages definitely live up to the hype. They’re not comparable to anything we have in the US, like pretty much everything else in China. Traveling through Henan and pretending to understand China would be like going to Arkansas and claiming to be an expert about the US. There’s a giant country to explore and many mysteries to be unveiled. One thing is for sure, as my travel friend Alvina confirmed, “It doesn’t matter if you’re living, working or visiting China, it always leaves you wondering ‘What? How? Why?’”
I am forever grateful to Cooperatize for making this opportunity possible with the North American Henan Tourism Board. I was not paid to write this, but my journey was made possible by all of their hard work. Our group is pictured above.